On the eve of the first World Jewish Congress Assembly in three years, the group’s chief spokesman said he welcomes the prospect of an investigation by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s office into its financial dealings but regrets the failure to resolve internally a conflict over past governance.The WJC Assembly will meet in Brussels for three days starting Sunday, with an expected 500 participants representing 88 Jewish communities from around the world.
Among the dignitaries who will address the conference are Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger.But the drama of the event may well be over the election of officers, since part of the rationale for holding the meeting at this time was to oust Isi Leibler as senior vice president.
Leibler, a former leader of the Australian Jewish community now living in Israel, has alleged financial improprieties in the WJC.WJC officials insist that the claims are without merit and have caused the organization needless negative attention.Stephen Herbits, who has served for the past several months as transitional director of the WJC, acknowledged that the attorney general’s office is looking into WJC finances and said he will “fully cooperate” because “I’ve got nothing to worry about” and “exoneration at that level” would benefit the WJC’s credibility.Whether or not Leibler decides to run for his position in Brussels, it seems clear he will not be elected, as most of the leaders of the WJC branches around the world have criticized him strongly for his stance. Leibler said he plans to attend the assembly, though.
Herbits is expected to be elected secretary general of the group. A former top aide at Seagrams to longtime WJC President Edgar Bronfman, Herbits told The Jewish Week that if elected, he will focus on issues of governance and not take “a policy role.”Bronfman and WJC Chairman Israel Singer are likely to be re-elected, and a finance committee chaired by Cobi Benatoff of the European branch is expected to be installed.Former New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams has been hired to represent the WJC in dealings with the attorney general’s office.What prompted that office to launch what Abrams called “an informal inquiry” at this point is a controversy over a series of transactions last year involving $1.2 million that went from New York to a Swiss bank account. WJC officials say the funds were intended for a pension fund for employees, including Singer, who formerly served the group for many years as its top executive.Leibler and several officials of the Swiss Jewish community have questioned the secrecy surrounding the funds, insisting that it is indicative of the way the WJC has operated.
They maintain that there have been no checks and balances within the WJC and that Singer and Bronfman made all the financial decisions.Herbits, discussing past methods of WJC bookkeeping, said Tuesday that “admittedly it wasn’t very pretty, but it wasn’t illegal.” He said he was confident the attorney general’s office would come to the same conclusion.“We still keep our financial records on pen and paper, not computers,” he said, “and it’s my job to modernize the system.” The WJC budget is approximately $8 million a year.Herbits was in Israel last week meeting with Leibler in an attempt to resolve their differences before the Assembly and any meetings with the attorney general’s office. Leibler said talks broke down when the two could not agree on the extent of the audit that would be undertaken by an independent firm.
Leibler and the disgruntled Swiss leaders want the accounting to go back several years and expose how business dealings were conducted. Herbits is said to have insisted that the focus be on going forward in terms of improving governance rather than backwards to expose any mismanagement. “I wasn’t satisfied that the terms [of the discussions] represented a genuine, independent audit,” said Leibler. “Trying to exclude an examination of past transactions would amount to the continuation of a cover-up.”On Tuesday, Herbits acknowledged that the talks failed but declined to say why, other than to note that he and Leibler have different interpretations of their discussions. Herbits said he would save his remarks about the nature and extent of WJC governance for his address Monday at the Assembly. He added that he had decided to hold the meeting with Leibler last week because “no responsible exec turns down an opportunity to try to solve a problem.”